The police are a divisive topic in modern politics. Depending on who you speak to, we should either defund the police or give them guns and a mandate to fire at will. The public views are so divergent that it just creates noise, but inside the police a far more important internal revolution is unfolding – and it's one we should support.
Evidenced-based policing (EBP) has a history back to the 1970s, but it wasn't until the late 1990s that Lawrence Sherman gave a name to it and put it on the map. Basically, EBP is the idea that research and evaluation is used to drive police actions and resourcing, or as a couple of academics put it: gives science a seat at the table. Sherman equated this approach to policing to that of evidence-based medicine.
Up until then, most policing was (and still is) based around the beliefs of experienced cops – a handy barometer at times, but an examination of good data is most often better than the instincts of even the best police officer.
EBP began to seed around the world, but only very slowly. New Zealand's Evidence Lead Policing Centre was established in 2017, and we were the first country to create a centre solely dedicated to EBP research and distribute the findings to the wider police service.
When wastewater testing provided us with a clear picture of what types and quantities of drugs were being used in New Zealand, police were shocked to learn that their assumptions about the drug market were often very wrong. I would suggest that there are many other areas where similar revelations are waiting to be made.
The latest offering from the New Zealand EBP team looks at the difference between criminal offenders who use methamphetamine and those offenders who don't, based on conviction data. The outcomes are broadly intuitive but the detail gives us great insights into a problem – indeed a range of problems – that we simply must address.
The baseline finding is that those who use methamphetamine create $824m worth of harm each year, it's no small number, but even more interesting is the difference between methamphetamine and non-methamphetamine offenders.
Methamphetamine offenders commit 5.4 times more offences than other offenders, and 7.2 times more harm is caused by their offending.
In 2021, methamphetamine offenders committed:
• 8.5 times more thefts
• 7.8 times more robberies
• 22.2 times more illicit drug offences
• 3.7 times more homicide offences
• 3.4 times more injurious acts
To be clear, this is a comparison made between offending groups, not offenders and non-offenders. The only difference between the groups is known methamphetamine use. In short, for offending populations, methamphetamine is related to far higher rates of overall crime.
The question is, then, what do we do?
The first is to recognise, as police have, that this is far bigger than simply a law enforcement problem. Police can and do make big arrests to target the supply of methamphetamine, but tackling the demand side is absolutely vital. Police have an important but limited role here.
Making arrests is all well and good, but basic economics suggests that where there is demand supply will always follow. And there is big money at play. It's estimated that drug dealers and organised crime groups make $297m per year from meth. When a slice of that is on offer, whenever one drug dealer is put in prison another will simply step into their place. Only by reducing the demand, therefore, can we better tackle the problem.
This is why police partnered with the Ministry of Health in the far north to run Te Ara Oranga, a programme that uses police operations to open the door to identify individuals and families that clearly have drug problems and introduce them to health-based solutions.
The programme was found to reduce the harms associated with meth and has recently been rolled out to Murupara.
But far more needs to be done to reduce demand. The number of people who use methamphetamine is relatively small at around 1.4% of the population – or around 40,000 people. Wastewater testing shows us that this group consumes 743 kilograms of the drug each year. Not everybody who uses the drug causes problems, and that's important to note, but we know that within this group, serious and disproportionate crimes, concerns and costs are all too real.
It's clearly in the community's interest to reduce the popularity of methamphetamine, and we should be doing this with the same intent the police employ to bust dealers. If we just focus on the supply side, we'll never get to the bottom of things.
The community benefits of success here will be immense, but more than that a reduction in demand hits organised crime as well as their market contracts.
Many people would perhaps reach those conclusions on their own, but evidence-based policing is proving just how important it is. And this is really just the start of EBP, and while it quietly works away with little fuss or publicity, that approach is far stronger than many of the views we hear publicly espoused by people whose firm opinions are negatively correlated to how much they know.
• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the
Director of Independent Research Solutions.